Electric Scooters reach viability as urban transport
By Mike Hanlon
June 4, 2004
It looks like a childrens scooter. It's small and silver, and there's no tell-tale bulge to suggest it has an engine, yet it will fly along at 18kmh, passing rollerbladers and even cyclists setting a brisk pace.
The way it spins heads when ridden in public is almost laughable.
It often draws the same response you'd expect if you'd just descended from the sky Superman-style as people ask what it is and what makes it go. That's the Xootr!
It can cover 10 km in just under 30 minutes yet the impression you are using a toy never leaves you - unless you paid the $2,500 asking price.
The Xootr's main problem is that its compact form has been achieved by dispensing with almost the niceties of civilised transport. There is NO suspension - the wheels are aluminium and the tyres are solid rubber, so every spec of gravel can be felt. Once it gets moving quickly, those specs are frequent, so on bumpy tarmac, it offers a very harsh ride and one which does not engender confidence because it "skitters around."
Probably the most disconcerting aspect of the Xootr is its braking. On one-hand it has regenerative braking, which is astonishing because it actually takes all that energy which would otherwise be lost in braking and puts at least some of it back into the battery. But the regenerative braking really doesn't brake very much, and the real brakes, which are a different lever, isn't a great deal better. The real brakes require such a vice-like grip to produce serious retardation, that they are poor at speed, when they are most likely to be really needed.
Its extreme light weight has advantages though. At a pinch it could be thrown over a shoulder and taken on public transport, providing the zip required for the "last mile" between train station and hom or the office. And once there, it is small enough to be recharged discretely in a cupboard or under a desk inside a few hours.
On one long haul, the Xootr finally ran out of power on both batteries and when that happened, we scooted home using it as a kick scooter, the guise under which it won many of the awards bestowed upon it. On this point, beware - the Xootr has won lots of awards - many of them quite prestigious - but many of them before it was blessed with a motor, batteries and a high-ticket price tag.
In short, it is the first of a new breed of portable, non-polluting conveyances which run at almost no cost and is accordingly highly significant. It proves the ever- increasing efficiency in battery and electric motor technology has reached a point where small and lightweight scooters can provide viable short-distance commuting at very low cost.
But almost everyone who rode both scooters quickly discounted it in comparison to the scooter which is half its price - the Phat Flyer. For our money, the Xootr is a high-tech toy that is too dangerous to be given to a child, and has only short-term appeal for an adult.
The Phat Flyer
We rode the Phat Flyer electric scooter under a variety of conditions over several weeks and we loved it. It is comfortable, brakes quickly, handles well, accelerates hard, has a top speed of 20kmh, and a range of at least 15 km to a charge. It recharges from a household power outlet in a few hours, and is the quickest same-suburb transport available. It also used around five cents worth of electricity for each full charge.
Now that's not only cheap, it's environmentally responsible as well. Whilst not as fast as the Xootr in outright speed (the Xootr would edge away slowly in a straight line), it would run for almost twice as far, and on anything less than a smooth road, the Flyer just gallops away courtesy of its pneumatic tyres absorbing the bumps, the stability of the frame/geometry and the confidence inspired by its infinitely better brakes.
Unfortunately, its build quality is low. It sells for $1,495 and the motor sells separately for $1,295 as a kit which can be fitted to a bicycle, indicating the quality of the kit (high) and the general cheapness and lifespan of the rest.
If they'd priced it at $1795 and fitted the Flyer with better quality running gear, it would have had much more appeal. The chain came off the Phat Flyer at one point and immediately the questionable design of the conveyance was highlighted. Getting the chain back on was a major chore, and we immediately got to wondering how the average buyer would cope with such mechanical disasters.
The chain coming off locked the rear wheel, and we had to carry the machine home - it was fortunate indeed that the rider at the time was designed to carry "hevvy fings" and coped. A lighter, less robust human would not have coped. On the brighter side, if the Phat Flyer or the Xootr run out of herbs, they can be thrown in the back of a taxi, which is much cheaper than a tow-truck.
If electric scooters are to succeed in the marketplace in any serious number, they will need to be close to maintenance free, or at very least, well designed for non-mechanical types to maintain painlessly. The Xootr is probably close to maintenance free, but doesn't cut it as a comfortable commuter. The Phat Flyer is not well designed from a maintenance stand-point - the chain coming off highlighted the shortcomings of the design.
Another area in which we're likely to see electric power make great inroads is in electric-assisted bicycles.
In America, the movement towards real efficiency and power in electric bikes is moving forward at an encouraging rate.